The Swiss Family Robinson

by Johann David Wyss, Johann Rudolf Wyss

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Summary

A Swiss family is left to fend for themselves after their ship wrecks against a coral reef and the crew escapes in the lifeboats without them. Fortunately, a portion of the ship’s cabin is wedged above the waterline, allowing the family adequate time to prepare for their journey to a nearby landmass. Using a set of tubs fastened together into a makeshift raft, they take as many of the ship’s tools and provisions as possible with them to the island, including food, tools, firearms, and other portable valuables.

Once they arrive on shore, the family creates a tent out of sailcloth and begins searching for food to augment what they brought with them from the ship. They quickly discover that the island is flush with natural resources. Over the course of the next few days, the father and eldest son Fritz begin exploring the island further, finding more sources of food as well as an abundance of wildlife. They also make several more trips out to the wrecked ship to gather more supplies. After figuring out how to craft makeshift life vests out of barrels, they are even able to safely transport some of the ship’s livestock to the island. The father worries that they will be stranded there for a long time, so he begins mentally planning for his family’s future.

The mother of the family—Elizabeth—suggests building a more permanent residence in the trees so that the family will be better protected from wildlife. Using the supplies from the ship, they are able to construct a sturdy treehouse that provides enhanced storage space and safety. They also begin constructing pens for the wildlife they brought from the ship and planting seeds for a garden. Ernest, the second oldest son, has an interest in botany and natural history, enabling him to identify many of the island’s native plants and animals. The younger two brothers, Jack and Franz, help their mother around the treehouse and tend to the crops and animals.

Throughout their efforts to build a safe and stable dwelling, the family encounters a variety of wild animals, including jackals, flamingos, monkeys, and strange birds. The father teaches his sons how to hunt using guns and ammunition brought over from the ship. He later builds them a bow and arrow set, knowing that the gunpowder will not last forever. The family also constructs several items to help make transporting supplies easier, including a cart that can be pulled by their donkey and a small pinnace—or row boat—that they use to transport more items from the shipwreck.

Led by the father, the family continues to expand their dwelling, adding many of the island’s bountiful resources—including sugar cane, spices, and coconuts—to their own stores. However, they soon realize that their treehouse does not provide adequate shelter or space during the rainy season, and they spend a miserable few months stuck inside with all of their livestock. The father resolves to find a different solution for the next year.

The rainy season ends, and the family begins rebuilding the structures that were damaged by the weather over the winter months. They also discover a sizable rock cavern that they decide to turn into a winter home. The family then constructs a cabin next to a lake, gradually mapping out the island and building more structures to accommodate their needs. The rock cavern in particular provides a safe storage place for more fragile materials, such as books and seeds.

The father and mother continuously do their best to educate the children, despite their rugged circumstances. They read from a bible the mother salvaged from the ship and frequently have in-depth philosophical discussions. The family also reads together, and they endeavor to have each member study different languages to give them the best chance at being able to communicate with any other people they may encounter.

Over the next ten years, the boys mature and become increasingly independent, and the family continuously refines their small colony. Fritz has built a canoe, and he frequently takes long trips to explore the island and its surroundings. During one of these outings, he encounters an albatross with a note from a fellow shipwreck survivor attached to its leg. He confides in his father about the note, and the two men resolve to investigate the matter without telling the rest of the family in case it should prove fruitless.

Fritz successfully finds the other survivor: a young English woman named Jenny Montrose. He brings her back to his family’s colony, where she is warmly received. She explains that she was shipwrecked on her way back to England from India, and that her father—an army officer—is likely extremely worried about her. The Swiss family happily accepts Jenny as one of their own, and she settles into life as a member of their colony.

A few months after Jenny’s arrival, the residents of the island are surprised to hear cannon fire in the distance. Worried it might be pirates, they cautiously investigate the ship, only to realize it is an English vessel that has come in search of Jenny at the behest of her father. The Swiss family invites the passengers and crew of the ship to visit their island colony, and several of the passengers are so impressed that they ask if they can stay. From there, arrangements are made to have the island recognized as a new colony—called New Switzerland.

Jenny, Fritz, and Franz choose to sail back to England with the promise that they will spread the word about New Switzerland and help establish commerce to and from the island. The father, mother, Ernest, and Jack all choose to stay behind with the hope that contact with the outside world will allow their colony to grow and prosper further. Before the ship leaves for England, the father entrusts his journals from the family’s time on the island to his departing sons in the hopes that they—and the rest of Europe—might learn from reading about the Swiss family’s adventures.

Themes

Survival and Self-Reliance

After being shipwrecked, the stranded Swiss family is forced to rely on their own knowledge and skills in order to survive on a deserted island. Each individual possesses different strengths. For insurance, Fritz is old enough to assist his father with more laborious tasks, Ernest’s interest in natural history enables him to identify plants and animals, and Elizabeth brings a uniquely feminine perspective that allows her to propose ideas the men may not consider. By working together, the family is able to gradually transform the island from a wild landscape that is full of perils into a civilized dwelling that can provide for all of their needs.

At the heart of the survival effort is the patriarch of the family. His expansive knowledge of botany, carpentry, engineering, and other topics allows him to guide his family and propose creative solutions to their problems. However, he is not a dictator; the narrator also has a deep respect for the ideas proposed by the rest of his family, and he takes the time to cultivate curiosity and independence in his sons. Indeed, he is keenly aware of the risks associated with living on a deserted island, and he seeks to instill in his sons “an enterprising spirit of self reliance” that will enable them to thrive even without their parents.

In many of the father’s sermons to his family, the notion of self-reliance is combined with the belief that the Christian god will provide for those “that help themselves.” The family maintains an attitude of piety and thankfulness, believing that god has given them everything they need in order to provide for their own needs on the island. Rather than treating their circumstances as a betrayal of their faith, they instead embrace their circumstances and strive to live a “peaceful, industrious,” and godly life.

Faith and Providence

Faith is a central theme throughout The Swiss Family Robinson, with Christianity providing a source of mental, spiritual, and intellectual fortitude for the family as they survive on a deserted island. Father often leads the family in prayer, and they maintain the Sabbath as a day of rest and reflection. Utilizing biblical parables, sermons, and scripture, the father imparts important life lessons upon his sons while also helping them retain the faith they need to thrive in their oftentimes trying circumstances. Furthermore, upholding biblical customs and teachings allows the family to retain a sense of civilized structure in their otherwise wild surroundings.

The notion of providence—or divine guidance—also plays an important role in shaping the family’s relationship with the island. Rather than viewing their circumstances as a trial or test of faith, they instead view the island as a gift from god. Although there is a certain level of fear and anxiety infused into their efforts to tame the island, the family generally approaches each new challenge with the belief that god will provide them with what they need. From there, they simply need to apply their own effort and ingenuity in order to thrive.

Family and Unity

Throughout the novel, the members of the Swiss family must work together in order to support their communal survival effort. They work together as a cohesive unit, supporting each other’s efforts and goals while providing valuable input when necessary. Indeed, many of the tasks the family undertakes likely could not have been completed by an individual: the carving out of their cavernous winter home, the capturing and taming of numerous wild animals, and the hauling of heavy and unwieldy supplies from the wreckage of their original ship all require large amounts of coordination and teamwork.

The presence of family also helps bolster the spirits of each character. The mother and father must mask their anxieties in order to model gratitude and optimism for their sons, and the boys retain the familial structures they were raised with. The parents also continue their children’s education, going so far as to build a library of sorts in their cavern dwelling. Each member of the family is tasked with studying different languages and disciplines to help support their communal knowledge bank. The father’s religious and moral teachings also help the sons learn things like personal responsibility, compassion for animals, and temperance.

At the end of the story, the family is primed to separate, with Fitz and Franz returning to England. However, rather than representing a dissolution of family structure, this instead represents the successful maturation of the sons into functional adults. As he prepares to say farewell to his sons, the father expresses pride that they have become honorable and independent men who can succeed in life without their parents.

Characters

Father

The unnamed narrator of The Swiss Family Robinson—referred to as “father” by his children—is the kind, knowledgeable, and pious leader of the family. His vast catalog of knowledge—ranging from plant identification to carpentry—proves instrumental as the shipwrecked family attempts to start a new life on the island. He loves his family deeply, and he works hard throughout the novel to help improve their quality of life. Much of the success the family finds in transforming the deserted island into New Switzerland can be attributed to the father’s gentle but authoritative presence.

The narrator is a religious man, and he frequently imparts Christian teachings on his wife and four sons. He encourages his sons to think deeply about the various obstacles they encounter by asking them questions and providing insightful commentary. Although his family may be stranded on a deserted island with little hope of returning to civilization, the narrator is nonetheless dedicated to ensuring his sons receive a proper education, and he helps his family retain the structures of civilization even in uncivilized surroundings. He proudly remarks upon their growth and progress throughout the novel, pleased that they have grown into “handsome” and “honorable” young men.

Elizabeth/Mother

Elizabeth is the narrator’s wife and the mother of Fritza, Ernest, Jack, and Franz. Like her husband, she is a religious woman with a deep love for her family. Over the course of the novel, she provides invaluable insights and ideas that help improve living conditions on New Switzerland. While her husband and sons manage fishing, hunting, and engineering, Elizabeth tends to the crops, cares for the animals, and performs more traditionally feminine housekeeping tasks, such as sewing. She represents the benefits of maternal guidance as well as the unique skills and knowledge possessed by women.

Fritz

Fritz is the eldest son of the family and he often assists his father with tasks that are ill-suited for his mother and younger brothers. Over the course of the novel, he matures from an eager young boy into a responsible, compassionate, and courageous young man. After finding Jenny’s note tied to the leg of an albatross, he becomes fixated on the idea of finding and rescuing her. It is this display of initiative that inspires Fritz’s father to declare him “of an age to be dependent on himself.” After successfully finding and rescuing Jenny, Fritz falls in love with her. Although he loves his family and the home they have created on New Switzerland, Fritz’s decision to return to England with Jenny represents his successful transition into a self-sufficient adult.

Ernest

Ernest is the second oldest son of the family. His knowledge of plants and animals proves helpful as the castaways attempt to identify the different plants and animals on the island. He is generally regarded as the most intelligent of the four boys, with a passion for reading and learning. He ultimately decides to stay with his parents on the island, fascinated by the scientific possibilities provided by the lush landscape.

Jack

Jack is the third son, and his father describes his temperament as “thoughtless” and somewhat excitable. However, Jack also proves to have a knack for innovation, and he enjoys more physical activities like hunting and fishing. He chooses to stay behind on the island with his family, joking that he is afraid of being forced to attend a proper school if he goes to Europe.

Franz

Franz is the youngest son. He is only six years old at the time of the shipwreck, and he is generally tasked with helping Elizabeth tend to the family’s dwellings during the early years. However, over time he is entrusted with more responsibility, eventually joining his father and brothers on hunts. At the end of the novel, he chooses to return to England with Fritz and Jenny, citing the fact that he is the youngest and therefore the most likely to be able to re-adapt to life in Europe.

Jenny/Emily Montrose

Jenny Montrose—referred to as Emily Montrose in some editions of the text—is a young English woman who is stranded on an island after her ship is wrecked. She ties a note to the leg of an Albatross, which is discovered by Fritz. Fritz then sets out to rescue Jenny, though his father at first doubts whether he will have any success. After being rescued, Jenny is near-immediately adopted by the Swiss family. It is through Jenny that the Swiss family is reconnected with European civilization, forcing them to choose between returning to their former life or remaining in New Switzerland.

Analysis

The Swiss Family Robinson is a robinsonade, or a specific genre of story modeled after Daniel Defoe’s 1719 adventure novel, Robinson Crusoe. Defoe’s work follows the story of the titular character after he is shipwrecked on a desert island. He must rely on his own ingenuity to survive, all the while avoiding cannibals and other threats. Robinson Crusoe was immensely popular, and it spurred the popularity of so-called castaway stories. These novels typically focused on one or more characters who were abruptly isolated from Western civilization and forced to adapt to their surroundings. The robinsonade tradition is what the word “Robinson” in the title of The Swiss Family Robinson alludes to—not the surname of the titular Swiss family, which is not provided in the text.

Unlike many other robinsonades, the stranded protagonists in The Swiss Family Robinson are not alone. Instead, the focus of the novel is on a family. This drastically alters the dynamic of the traditional castaway narrative, as the various members of the family are able to rely on one another and turn to each other for support during difficult times. Even the presence of pets and other tamed animals—such as the dogs and the orphaned monkey the family adopts—represent camaraderie and companionship. While life on the island is not easy, it is made less difficult when burdens can be shared between people rather than shouldered alone.

The island’s abundant resources also add a degree of ease—and an element of the fantastical—to the family’s plight. Over the years since the novel’s publication, critics have pointed out the relative absurdity of geographically incompatible animals like flamingos, lions, kangaroos, and penguins all residing on the same island. However, the novel was not necessarily intended to be a factual accounting of life on a desert island; instead, it was designed to be a didactic adventure story about self-reliance, the beauty of the natural world, and Christian values.

Johann David Wyss was a clergyman, and he originally conceptualized The Swiss Family Robinson as an instructional story for his own children. The lessons the father in the novel imparts to his sons mirror many of the common parables, fables, and biblical stories commonly taught to children in contemporary Christian households. Furthermore, Wyss heavily emphasizes the relationship between the Christian god and the natural world, attributing the island’s plentiful resources to Providence, or divine care.

The relationship between humans and nature is explored throughout the novel—and in many other robinsonades—as the family endeavors to create their colony on the island. In many ways, nature provides for them, offering everything they need to clothe, feed, and shelter themselves. However, the natural world also poses threats: wild animal attacks and inclement weather continuously disrupt the family’s efforts. Despite these setbacks, the father encourages his sons to continue to appreciate nature for all that it provides for them. He maintains his belief that they should never “take the life of an animal needlessly,” emphasizing that they should only kill another living creature out of self-preservation—often scolding his more impulsive sons for killing animals unnecessarily. This represents the family’s dedicated efforts to live in harmony with their surroundings and truly embrace the island as their home.

The family’s relative happiness on the island also represents a departure from most other castaway narratives. In Robinson Crusoe and other popular adventure novels, the protagonist labors to survive in the hope that they will someday be rescued. By contrast, the father of the Swiss family immediately recognizes that they will likely be on the island for a long time, and he endeavors to plan for both the present and the future. The infrastructure the family builds on the island is extensive, and they are constantly looking for ways to improve their dwellings and upgrade their equipment. By the time they have the chance to return to Europe, most of the family has come to consider the island an idyllic and peaceful place that they have no desire to leave.

Much of the family’s happiness can be attributed to the fact that they do not appear to be at-odds with their circumstances. In most robinsonades, there is a central conflict between the human characters and some other force, such as nature, Western civilization, an indigenous culture, or even the divine. However, the Swiss family is instead relatively content with their situation, and the only antagonistic forces present in the novel are the occasional bout of bad weather or an encounter with aggressive wildlife. The family’s belief in Providence allows them to view the island and its bountiful resources as a blessing, and their love for each other sustains their faith and happiness through every hardship.

Quotes

Take courage, my boys! We are all above water yet. There is the land not far off, let us do our best to reach it. You know God helps those that help themselves! (Chapter 1)

This quote represents the symbiotic relationship between faith and self-reliance within the novel. The Swiss family are devout Christians, and the father frequently references Providence, or the idea that god provides all that people need to survive. However, people must still work hard in order to put god’s gifts to proper use. Essentially, god protected the ship from being completely wrecked and he has positioned the family near land; now, they must apply their own effort and ingenuity in order to make the bountiful island habitable.

Fritz was so provoked by their impertinent gestures that he raised his gun, and would have shot one of the poor beasts.

‘Stay,’ cried I, ‘never take the life of any animal needlessly. A live monkey up in that tree is of more use to us than a dozen dead ones at our feet, as I will show you.’ (Chapter 2)

The novel is full of didactic lessons imparted by the father to his sons, and this is one major example. Fritz’s first instinct upon being mocked by the monkeys is to shoot at them, highlighting his youth, inexperience, and impulsiveness. However, his father advises him to exercise compassion and think more rationally, showing him how the monkeys can be used to more efficiently gather coconuts.

“No! But then we can’t go to church here, and there is nothing else to do.”

“We can worship here as well as at home,” I said

“But there is no church, no clergyman and no organ,” said Franz.

‘The leafy shade of this great tree is far more beautiful than any church,” I said, “there will we worship our Creator.” (Chapter 4)

Although they are far from civilization, the Swiss family still maintains certain structures within their life, with religion playing a prominent role. Although the sons may no longer have access to a church or congregation, their father is still determined that they will receive a religious education. By encouraging his sons to worship in nature, he is also reinforcing the concept that god has provided the island for the family.

It was my wish that our sons should cultivate a habit of bold independence, for I well knew that it might easily be the will of God to deprive them of their parents; when, without an enterprising spirit of self reliance, their position would be truly miserable. (Chapter 12)

While the father generally serves as the firm head of the family, he does also encourage his sons to think and explore for themselves. He imparts valuable survival skills upon them, such as shooting, riding, farming, and engineering. This quote reflects his practical mindset as well as his parenting philosophy, as he strives to ensure his sons will be able to care for themselves if anything were to happen to him. Ultimately, he does not want his children to be blindly obedient to his will. Instead, he wants them to have the knowledge, creativity, and skills needed to survive and thrive on their own.

Children are, on the whole, very much alike everywhere, and you four lads fairly represent multitudes, who are growing up in all directions. It will make me happy to think that my simple narrative may lead some of these to observe how blessed are the results of patient continuance in well-doing, what benefits arise from the thoughtful application of knowledge and science, and how good and pleasant a thing it is when brethren dwell together in unity, under the eyes of parental love. (Chapter 18)

As he prepares to part from his eldest and youngest sons, the father presents them with the journals he has kept for the past ten years, hoping they might bring them back to Europe and recruit more colonists for New Switzerland. This quote is something of a thesis statement for The Swiss Family Robinson as a whole, which is generally regarded as didactic in nature; just as the father in the novel imparts knowledge to his sons, so too does Wyss endeavor to impart knowledge to the reader—having originally written the novel for his own sons. As a clergyman, Wyss held deep religious convictions, and the novel reflects his belief in the virtues of a simple, peaceful, and godly life within a loving and cohesive family unit.

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